Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) was a very prolific composer, and has to his credit eleven symphonies, concertos, a body of magnificent choral music and a fair amount of chamber music, including four string quartets. Self-promotion was anathema to him and may account, in part, for his relative neglect until recently. A small man with twinkling eyes, he was very modest and was always delighted if someone, however humble, expressed an appreciation of his music. An academic musician of his acquaintance rang him one afternoon and someone had to fetch him in from the garden where he was mowing the lawn. When he got to the telephone, Rubbra apologised profusely at being caught out doing such an uncomposerly thing and promised he would get down to some composition as soon as he had finished. Much of his music was influenced by his deeply religious and mystical outlook.
Dutton have recorded a number of Rubbra's chamber works, including the Piano Trio in One Movement and the three violin sonatas. This disc is their first venture into the string quartets and includes the 2nd and 4th as well as the Lyric Movement for String Quartet & Piano and the Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn `O quando in Cruce' in the version for two violas.
The second quartet (1952) is a very fine work which begins with a statement of the basic material (the interval of the 4th is important) which then grows, the initial rather deliberate tempo becoming faster then slower but accelerating overall, something very characteristic of this composer. The delightful Scherzo Polimetrico is highly rhythmic, the cross-rhythms caused by the instrumental parts being written in different time signatures. The very beautiful, meditative Cavatina is food for the spirit. The final allegro returns to the flexible tempo, tension increasing with the speed.
The short Lyric Movement (1929) used material from a discarded string quartet. The piano writing at the beginning briefly pre-echoes the Piano Quartet in One Movement of over 20 years later. Rubbra's mature style had not evolved yet but the music, with its intense lyricism, is gorgeous all the same and Herbert Howells comes to mind at times.
A more austere lyricism pervades the Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn for two violas. Rubbra used the word `meditation' when he meant `variation' though in a freer sense. This is a fascinating piece for a very unusual combination.
Rubbra's last quartet, No 4, was first performed in 1977. Of the major works, only the 11th symphony and the Sinfonietta were to come. To me, this is the most elusive of the quartets but this performance by the Dante Quartet has clarified things no end, no doubt the result of careful thought and adequate rehearsal. The interval of the 7th plays a vital role in this work. The first section of the first half is characterised by a proliferation of ideas which can be hard to follow at first. The second section is faster and the music presents no problems. The beautiful second half is elegiac and deeply felt - a fitting conclusion to his quartet oeuvre.
The Dante Quartet give good performances throughout and they seem particularly successful in shaping the works. The recording, made at The Maltings, Snape, is good too. The insert notes by John Pickard are full and knowledgeable and include a lovely photo of Rubbra sitting by his piano at home which makes a change from the regular ones seen in CDs. Let us hope Dutton do the other two quartets now.